Saturday, December 22, 2012

Complacency: a strange creature indeed

Well, well, 12/22/12, and we're still here.  Not that I take 'existence' for granted.  Quite the contrary.

It's been a few months since the last essay I've posted to this blog, but that doesn't mean my thoughts have been idle.  I had a few ideas I've been considering as a good points to re-enter the blog routine, but some of those incubated past their apparent expiration dates.  I was going to step over one of my ground rules and discuss some politics before the presidential election, but that passed - maybe for the better.  I might just go back to that as we slide into 2013 and the nation's finances become (hopefully) center stage.  

However, one idea that kept resurfacing was the concept of complacency.  I'll be didactic for just a moment, to keep things nice and clear.  Merriam-Webster defines complacency as (1) self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual danger or deficiencies, (2) an instance of usually unaware or uninformed self-satisfaction.

I find complacency to be the most insidious of human shortcomings.  It's a characteristic, or issue, I've dealt with in much of my fiction, because I think it touches upon a basic philosophical aspect of being human: in our efforts to find a notion of stability and security in the great unknowns of existence, we want to believe that the way in which we live is not subject to change, particularly if the state of living happens to be somewhat appeasing.  The dark side of complacency, though, is just what it's definition suggests - that satisfaction with a current state of being is illusory, while change - in all in its anarchic incarnations - lurks just around the corner.

Indeed, there are many problems lurking ahead as we round the corner to 2013, but I'll focus on two in particular.

The idea of writing a bit about complacency hit home after Hurricane Sandy.  I live on Long Island, New York, but I was fortunate enough not to sustain any damage to my house. Power went out, but again I had the good fortune to have power and connectivity services restored within forty-eight hours of the storm.  When I was able to see more of the world around me, I came to realize the degree of my good fortune.  Within days, though, the stark reality of multi-hour gasoline lines and the looming prospect of people possibly freezing to death in the frigid nights following the storm were a bit of a shock.  Not just to me, but to many people I know, such things seemed surreal - these were realities that happened somewhere else, not in our area.

Complacency had reared a bit of its ugly head.  Should anyone have been surprised at the damage suffered by Long Island, Manhattan, and coastal New Jersey?  Not at all.  Emergency management officials, climatologists, and weather professionals had all expressed concern after Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans that the New York-New Jersey area was even more susceptible to damage from a major storm.  Just look at a map.  Long Island's south shore looks out over the vast expanse of the Atlantic, and the south shore forms a nice funnel with New Jersey's coast to trap storm surge water and amplify its effect.  Nevertheless, the attitude prevailed that something of such scale could never happen here, and that abatement efforts were perhaps futile given the scope of vulnerable areas.  

It's not a matter of denial.  Denial would constitute the simple belief that it can't happen.  Complacency tells us it won't happen, because it hasn't happened before, and since it hasn't happened before, there's no reason it could happen.  It may seem subtle, but it's more than a semantic difference, and a recent event highlights that difference.

Moving ahead, we are confronted with a very different, but no less shocking event, the horrifying shootings at Newtown, Connecticut.  The scale of affected people may be much different than Hurricane Sandy, but the impact is perhaps more devastating.  We knew Hurricane Sandy was coming.  On the other hand, no one expected the tragedy of Newtown.

Or should we have expected such a tragedy?  Days before Newtown, there were multiple shootings in a mall in Oregon.  Before that, the movie theater shootings at a showing of 'Batman'.  Prior to that, the shootings in Arizona that targeted Gabby Giffords. 

Need the list continue?  Or should it be taken from the opposite perspective, and taken as confirmation that mass shootings are not a question of if but when.  The same can be said of Hurricane Sandy's impact on New York-New Jersey.  It really wasn't a matter of if, but when.  

All the troubles that beset us are not coming as surprises, but manifestations of low outcome scenarios made real.  On the other hand, maybe they're not such low outcomes as we would like to believe.  Insert 'complacency' here.  The examples go beyond what I've mentioned here.  Japan thought it was safe against tsunamis - to a point.  Areas of the United States that never saw flood damage, have seen massive flood damage - hence the growth of flood insurance.  The same goes for wild fires.

So, if complacency underlies so many problems, is there a common cure?  In a way, there is, and this is what makes complacency such a curious creature: it is a generalized process underlying specific situations.  Until there is a serious discussion about gun control, we will be plagued by mass shootings.  Until coastal over-development is addressed as a major concern in future land projects, coastal floods will be devastating.  Until elected officials can have a serious discussion about government over-spending, economies in many countries will creep ever closer to calamitous recession and bankruptcy.

If there's a common thread, it should be self apparent.  At least by now, that is, and it's something that takes the conversation straight back to that initial definition of complacency: we have to see through the illusion of our self-satisfaction to see the true nature of the dangers ahead.  Complacency urges us not to look our problems in the face, because doing so not only forces us to acknowledge the problems, not only forces us to acknowledge our own hand in their creation, but forces us to accept that we must have a sobering discussion about changing our ways.  Complacency needs to evolve, so that we are complacent with the nature of change itself.

Until then, our messes will continue to pool about us, and their dark waters rise ever higher.  It sounds grim, but it need not be.  If there's a thread of hope, it comes in the one thing we possess as a species, and that is the conscious ability to adapt, to not only accept change, but embrace it and bend it to our advantage.  

After all, if we lacked that capacity, humanity never would have spread across the globe, and we would have vanished long ago.  The message for 2013 is that we still have windows of opportunity, we only need to be brave enough to pursue them.

And so, on that note of guarded optimism, we ring in a new year.  Happy Holidays!

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